Dead Star Shine
"Are you sure you wanna know what death is like, Jet? It's not what you think. People talk about a white light, your life flashing before your eyes, or some comforting voice calling you from the beyond. Heh, that's a crock of shit. No, it's the world you knew slipping through your fingers as you sink into a cold embrace. Numb. Listless … there is no fighting the inevitable slide until you close your eyes knowing one last thing. Opening them again would bring more pain than a soul can bear."
The transport ship jostled every passenger inside, from the ISSP agents on guard to the prisoners secured in their restraints. Bob heaved a sigh as the engines whined down. How did I draw the short straw for this delivery? Twenty-nine days in hyperspace. After this short stop to drop off inmates and supplies it'll be another twenty-nine back. The things I do for the ISSP.
"We're down." The pilot called over her shoulder. "Bay doors shut. Give them a few moments to purge the atmo in the bay and you can unload. Welcome to Quidlivun Cavus Prison Colony. Worst shithole in the galaxy."
The four ISSP agents stared expectantly at the light above the ship door. A full minute passed before it flashed from red to green.
"Alright." Bob glanced through the bars at the dozen prisoners. "Let's make this quick."
The hatch opened and a couple of guards bundled up in heavy thermal gear stood with weapons at the ready.
Holding up the manifest, Bob waved them down. "Cool your jets, we're in control."
"Just protocol." A guard came up the took the manifest, skimming through it. "Can't be too careful. Specially with fresh arrivals." He counted the prisoners behind the bars. "Yup. Everything matches. Follow us in with your charges. Bring up the rear."
Steely-eyed, everyone remained on edge, weapons in reach as the line of restrained prisoners shuffled out. The moment Bob left the hold of the ship a blast of air chilled him to the core. The halls of the sprawling building tucked in a yawning cavus, the steep walls providing a barrier that seemed pointless given the inhospitable environment of the planet. Pluto was barely terraformed. In an atmosphere cold enough to freeze nitrogen solid, any idiot who tried to break out would freeze to death in seconds outside the structure. Even inside the structure Bob watched his breath condense into a cloud. Ice crystals fringed every surface in the main halls as they passed through the system of gates. Each one clanged shut behind them before the next would open.
At last, they reached the processing point. With nothing to do but wait for the inmates to be processed, Bob and the ISSP agents lingered in the chilly air.
Kenneth hugged himself. "Damn it's cold in here. Can you imagine being one of the stiffs locked in this joint? Wish I'd brought my gear suited for Callisto. How cold is it in here?"
One of the guards pointed at a thermometer. "Just below freezing. It's as warm as we can make a place this big. Only got a few more hours and my shift ends. Can't wait to go to the satellite ship and warm up."
"Doesn't it suck being out this far?"
"Pretty much. But that's why guard duty stints are rotated out here. A man'd go nuts subjected to this for years on end." He nodded as another guard waved the last prisoner into the door. "Alright, that's the last of the scumbags. Give us a bit longer to unload the supplies and you guys can head on back. Bet you can't wait to get off this frozen turd."
Bob wiped at the mucus solidifying on his mustache. "To put it mildly." He turned and started back the way they had come through the frosted hallways, the general population of inmates idled around the corridors dressed in thin blue thermal jumpsuits with a reflective stripe on the left breast bearing their assigned numbers. Each wore a composite collar with a multi-prong key lock. An amber light shimmered on the side. Bob recalled a note about the collar's activation. If any prisoner made it into the launch bay with one of those on it was the last step he'd take. A dose of an aggressive poison lay waiting for the signal. That bay was the only way out of Quidlivun.
The halls were far from silent. Coughing filled the air, desperate gasps from gaunt figures huddled to preserve warmth. Men who were known to be the most violent and despicable criminals in the system were reduced to shivering wrecks.
Kenneth quickened his steps, eyeing one of the prisoner's practically hacking up a lung. "Ehhh … I don't like this place."
"Stop being a fool. Didn't you read up before we took off?" Bob grumbled. "Places like this are rife with Ice Fever. Relax, with this quick stint you won't catch it. Even if you did, warm temperatures foster recovery. You'll note the guards are all fine."
"Oh yeah," replied Kenneth sheepishly.
Still, doesn't make me feel comfortable. He shuddered as they approached a wall with three prisoner's seated on the floor, their wrists bound above their bowed heads. The position hardly looked comfortable. One man writhed, his flesh an unhealthy blue. " … help … me … " he rattled, ending in a feeble cough.
The prisoner to his right snapped. "Oh, shut your trap you damn moron! You're the one that got us into this."
The third grunted, "Heh, you're one to speak. It's your fault he's dying. You shived his ass!"
Bob's steps halted. He zeroed in on the last figure. That voice was hoarse, but familiar. It was hard to be certain in the dim light, the silhouette distorted by the shaggy mop of matted overgrown blackish hair and an unkempt beard … or was that hair slightly green? A glint off his dark brown eyes unsettled Bob … they'd never met in person. He'd just been a figure in the background of video calls, a voice loaded with snide remarks. No! It can't be!
He continued to grouse, "Nice work leaving a gash in his thermal suit big enough to let in the elements."
"I should have done it to you!"
"You tried. Where did that get you?"
The nearby guard slammed a long, wired pole against the wall between them. Sparks flew. "Silence!"
Through the tangled strands of frosted hair, the man snarked, "That asshole started it!" His raised voice cut off sharply as a wracking cough stole his breath. He leaned his head back, obviously fighting to lengthen his chest cavity and release the pressure from his raised arms by lifting against the shackles.
When he finished, the guard smirked. "I don't care who started it. One more word out of either of you and I'll split your thermal suits wide open and watch you turn into human-cicles."
His eyes narrowed at the guard in a hostile stare. But he said nothing more. The lights illuminated his irises. Bob, stiffened. The right was a shade or two lighter than the left. There was no doubt. Spike!
The guard wandered over to chat with the others as the disruption quieted down. Nonchalantly, Bob wandered closer and bent over Spike, his head bowed to his chest just above the number: 240594126. Bob whispered, "How long have you been coughing?"
"Piss off!" he growled, ending in a blatant attempt to curtail a coughing fit.
"Spike. Answer me, quickly."
He shot a venomous glare, gritting his teeth. The expression faded the moment he locked eyes. The bravado stripped away, Spike's gaunt figure sagged into the shackle-hold. This close there was no overlooking the sores peering out from beneath the restraints. Nor the deep purple marks coloring his knuckles from a recent scrap. He barely rasped out, "Bob?"
With a nod, Bob glanced over his shoulder to be certain the guard wasn't approaching. "It's important, Spike. How long?"
His eyes shut. Spike took a few shaky breaths before he shrugged as much as the shackles allowed. "Time has little meaning here … I … I honestly can't tell you. Maybe … a couple of weeks? Shit, I don't know."
Bob reached forward, about to reply when a slamming accompanied by sparks startled him. Spike flinched away from the bright blue shower. Choking the long pole, the guard glared down at Spike. "What did I say about speaking, maggot!"
"Easy!" Bob stood up and spread his hands wide. "I demanded he answer a question. He just followed the orders of an ISSP officer." Slowly, he moved off, glancing over his shoulder. Bob couldn't help but hold his breath at the desperate hope dying in the gaze barely concealed by the mat of hair. Damn it, why did it have to be here? The moment he reached the transport ship the crew snapped at him for the delay.
Bob strapped in and glanced out the window as the ship lumbered into the air through the opened bay doors. Below, the harsh frozen cavus vanished into a blue shadow. His heart dropped into his belly. All this time … how had they not known in all this time?
See you, Space Cowboy